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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Regional Realism Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) (1876-1938)

[1801] J. N. Choate, Group of Omaha boys in cadet uniforms, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania (1880), courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [NWDNS-75-IP-1-10].

Writer, musician, educator, and Indian rights activist, Zitkala-Sa (or Red Bird) was born on the Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. After her white father abandoned the family, she was brought up by her Indian mother in traditional Sioux ways. At the age of eight, Zitkala-Sa’s life was transformed when white missionaries came to Pine Ridge and convinced her to enroll in a boarding school in Wabash, Indiana. Part of a movement to “civilize” Indian children by removing them from their native culture and indoctrinating them in Euro-American ways, the school trained Indian pupils in manual labor, Christianity, and the English language. Zitkala-Sa found it a hostile environment and struggled to adapt.

After three years at school, Zitkala-Sa returned to Pine Ridge only to find herself estranged from her traditional culture and from her mother. While she was not completely comfortable with the Euro-American culture she encountered at school, she was also no longer at home with Sioux customs. She returned to school and eventually received scholarships to Earlham College in Indiana and to the New England Conservatory of Music to study violin. After completing her studies she became a music teacher at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

Frustrated by her position on the margins of both Indian and white culture and increasingly outraged by the injustices she saw visited on Native Americans, Zitkala-Sa resolved to express her feelings publicly in writing. Her reflective autobiographical essays on her experiences among the Sioux and in white culture appeared in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly in 1900. In these pieces, Zitkala-Sa explored what she called the “problem of her inner self,” grappling with the question of her cultural identity and her relationship with her family. She also used the essays as occasions to expose the injustices perpetrated by whites on Native Americans and to critique the insensitivity of white strategies for “civilizing” Indians.

After the publication of the autobiographical essays, Zitkala-Sa composed an Indian opera called “Sun Dance” and compiled collections of traditional Sioux legends and stories that she translated into English. Her outspoken views eventually alienated authorities at the Carlisle School, so she left to work at Standing Rock Reservation. There she met and married Raymond Bonnin, another Sioux activist. Together they became involved in the Society of American Indians, founded the National Council of American Indians, and worked tirelessly on behalf of Native American causes. Zitkala-Sa died in Washington, D.C., and was buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Teaching Tips

  • In the preface to one of her collections of Sioux legends and traditional stories, Zitkala-Sa explained that her goal was to “transplant the native spirit of these tales–root and all–into the English language, since America in the last few centuries has acquired a second tongue.” Ask students to consider the implications of “transplanting” stories from one language and culture into another. Why might Zitkala-Sa have chosen this plant metaphor to characterize her translation project? You might also ask them to analyze the role of language and translation in Zitkala-Sa’s autobiographical writings. What kinds of problems does she encounter when she is forced to communicate in English at the missionary school? At one point, she describes the school authorities’ English speech as creating a “bedlam within which I was securely tied.” What kinds of emotional frustrations does her inability to understand or speak English create? How does her eventual success speaking English at a college oratorical contest resonate with these issues?
  • Have your students examine the images of the Indian boarding schools featured in the archive. They could also read Louise Erdrich’s poem “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways.” Ask your students to write poems or prose reflections on what the boarding school experience would have been like for the different people who lived and worked there (teachers, janitors, students, the people who lived in the town nearby).

Author Activities

  1. Comprehension:How does Zitkala-Sa describe the education in traditional Sioux ways that she receives from her mother? What strategies does her mother use to teach her such skills as beadwork? What other values and skills does her mother teach her? How does the education she receives from her mother compare with the education she receives at the mission school? What kinds of discipline does she encounter at school?
  2. Comprehension:As she rides the train on her first trip to school, Zitkala-Sa narrates her feelings about the telegraph poles that she sees out of the train windows: “I was quite breathless on seeing one familiar object. It was the telegraph pole which strode by at short paces…. Often I had stopped, on my way down the road, to hold my ear against the pole, and, hearing its low moaning, I used to wonder what the paleface had done to hurt it.” Later, she characterizes her own fractured identity in similar terms: “Now a cold bare pole I seemed to be, planted in a strange earth.” Why does the image of the telegraph pole recur in Zitkala-Sa’s autobiographical essays? What is the significance of this symbol of technological progress and linguistic communication? How does it figure Zitkala-Sa’s own concerns with language and with white culture? Why does Zitkala-Sa eventually come to see herself as a “cold bare pole”?
  3. Context: Like fellow Sioux writer Charles Alexander Eastman, Zitkala-Sa found that her Euro-American education left her in a somewhat marginal social position: she did not feel wholly comfortable within white culture, but neither was she completely at home with traditional Sioux customs. How do Zitkala-Sa’s efforts to solve the “problem of her inner self,” as she puts it, compare to Eastman’s attempts to construct a role for himself as a “white doctor” who is also an Indian? What strategies do the two writers adopt to deal with the conflicts they encounter upon returning to the Sioux agency? How are their attitudes toward their roles within traditional Sioux society different? How might gender have impacted their reactions to their status as “educated Indians”?
  4. Exploration: In “The Indian Autobiography: Origins, Type, and Function,” literary critic Arnold Krupat argues that American Indian autobiography is a textual equivalent to the frontier; it is “a ground on which two cultures meet.” To what extent is this true of the form and content of Zitkala-Sa’s writing? How does her work compare to earlier bicultural autobiographical accounts, like those of Mary Rowlandson, William Apess, or Frederick Douglass? How does she draw on and modify the tradition of literary self-making pioneered by these writers? How does her status as a woman and as a Native American impact her narration of her own life?

Selected Archive Items

[1056] William S. Soule, Arapaho camp with buffalo meat drying near Fort Dodge, Kansas (1870),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Still Picture Branch.
Parlor culture was not limited to white, upper-class women; less privileged women struggled with the imposition of these values. In her essays, Zitkala-Sa poignantly narrates her Sioux mother’s difficulty in making the transition from her traditional dwelling to a Euro-American style cottage.

[1801] J. N. Choate, Group of Omaha boys in cadet uniforms, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania (1880),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [NWDNS-75-IP-1-10].
Ten uniformed Omaha boys of various ages pose at the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Many schools like Carlisle, which was one of the most famous and where Zitkala-Sa taught, opened in the nineteenth century with the purpose of immersing Native American children in “civilized” European American ways.

[5365] Frances Benjamin Johnston, Carlisle Indian School (1901),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-119133].
Photograph of students at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Poet Marianne Moore taught at the school for four years.

[5810] Unknown, Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin), a Dakota Sioux Indian (c. 1900),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-119349].
Portrait of Zitkala-Sa, a writer, musician, educator, and Indian rights activist. Much of Zitkala-Sa’s work was driven by the injustices she witnessed against Native Americans and the feeling that she lived on the margins of both Indian and white culture.

[5819] Zitkala-Sa, An Indian Teacher among Indians (1900),
courtesy of Cornell University, Making of America Digital Collection.
Zitkala-Sa’s essays on her experiences among the Sioux and in white culture appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1900.

[5820] Zitkala-Sa, Impressions of an Indian Childhood (1900),
courtesy of Cornell University, Making of America Digital Collection.
Frustrated by her position on the margins of both Indian and white culture and outraged by the injustices she saw visited on Native Americans, Zitkala-Sa resolved to express her feelings publicly in writing.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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